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Introduction to New Orleans Jazz

“I doubt if there is a city in the world, where the resident population has been so divided in its origin, or where there is such a variety in the tastes, habits, manners, and moral codes of the citizens.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  – Frederick Law Olmstead, The Cotton Kingdom


New Orleans, the city “created atop swamps” in order for North American settlers to transport goods via the Mississippi River, contains one of the most heterogeneous populations in the United States. As a result of its location and important role in the international economy, New Orleans became home to an amalgamation of culture, language, and groups of people including the French, Spanish, African American, European, Caribbean, Latin American, and Scandinavian. When the United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, the size of this nascent country doubled and consequently, New Orleans became one of the country’s major and most vital cities, with its diversity and variegated racial realities shaping and contributing to the moral and spiritual lives of figures such as Abraham Lincoln and poet Walt Whitman, both of whom first witnessed there the true cruelty of slavery.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the city dubbed “the Crescent City” was alive and brimming with voices and sounds—music, which functioned largely as a survival mechanism, a way for people to momentarily escape the brutal realities of nature and society. The floods, fires, epidemics, and riots that plagued New Orleans were (briefly) forgotten through a distinct form and style of music, unique to this city and its array of cultures and people. As the nineteenth century continued, the balls and public dances held in New Orleans became legendary for their inter-racial audiences, attracting a variety of bands which came together, mixing and matching their musical styles, forming what later came to be called “jazz.”  Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, reedman Sidney Bechet and trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong, deeply influenced by the popular musical genre opera and the Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, were most notable for creating the daring, bold, and distinct “jazz idiom.” Congo Square, which was one of only two areas in the United States where African drumming, singing, and dancing were permitted (and where slaves were allowed to freely dance, move, and express themselves) was the place where the exact roots of New Orleans Jazz may be traced. Here, African expression combined and intermingled with the New World, paving the way for the artistry and success of musicians like Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a barber and coronet whose music was the first to be characterized as “jazz.”

Bolden took ragtime, the popular piano music of the early twentieth century, and played it in a “rough-and-ready” style reflecting the vocals and improvisation of the blues. This transmogrification of ragtime into a “harder-edged” and horn-based form provided the framework for future jazz artists and bands, including cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, who added a twist of elegance and sophistication to the mix. In addition, Oliver and his band championed the polyphonic approach to ensemble playing, in which horn players (two trumpets, clarinet and trombone) all played concurrently. In order to avoid sounding “jumbled,” each musician was required to both listen intently to the other members while simultaneously creating his own response. Classic New Orleans jazz, with its dynamic and complex mix of melodies, was, indeed, representative of its polyglot communities.

In 1917, when Storyville, New Orleans’ red-light district closed, its group of entertainment workers were forced seek employment in other cities. The closing of Storyville coincided with the migration northward of southern Blacks. Many jazz artists relocated to Chicago, Illinois, although some were scattered throughout the state of California. Louis Armstrong, born in 1901, too young to be drafted for World War One, left New Orleans as well and joined his mentor Joe “King” Oliver in Chicago in late 1922. Armstrong continued to travel, back out west, and then back to the East Coast, where he came to reside in New York. Original New Orleans jazz continued in “The Crescent City” as well as in other parts of the United States, including Kansas City, New York, Los Angeles, and other countries around the world. By 1940, New Orleans had become a “Mecca” for jazz lovers and artists. New Orleans Jazz has influenced some of the more contemporary artists, such as Fats Domino, Harry Connick Jr., Professor Longhair, and Aaron Neville, whose music is reflective of jazz’s original heart, beat, and soul.


Archives Resources

Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection- The Louisiana State Museum Digital Library Jazz collection offers a variety of photographs, audio recordings and musical instruments focusing on New Orleans Jazz and artists.

Louisiana State Museum Recordings- This Jazz Collection has close to 10,000 recordings in a variety of formats including piano rolls and digital tape.

NPR Jazz and Blues- This website offers information on a variety of contemporary and classic jazz artists as well as selected recordings.

The William Ranson Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz- Compiled by Tulane University, this resource boasts hundreds of volumes of the newsletter The Jazz Archivist.

Graphics-This resource contains thousands of photographs and prints of musicians, bands, and orchestras, funerals with brass bands, parades, and signature landmark buildings of jazz history.


Additional Resources

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation- This Foundation established as a nonprofit owner of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) and seeks to promote original New Orleans Jazz.

Grauman Marks Photographs- An extensive collection of photographs and information on jazz artists compiled by Grauman Marks.

New Orleans Jazz Orchestra-New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) is a performing arts organization whose goal is to strengthen the business of Jazz through performances, touring, recordings, and education and media platforms.

New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park- This website offers a variety of historical, cultural, educational, and travel information for those interested in exploring New Orleans Jazz.

Jazz Resource Library- This website offers a variety of information on Jazz, including historical information on jazz artists, images, audio recordings, a glossary of terms, links, and other educational resources.

Image courtesy of dsb nola